Stress-Reducing Secret No. 7: Just Give (and you’ll get back in multiples)

I once attended a talk where a business coach revealed a key secret for success: “Be sure to define success in terms you control,” she explained. “Pinning your idea of success to forces you have nothing to do with is called ‘gambling,’ not ‘creating a pathway to success.’ “

I got to thinking about that lesson yesterday: It was 10:00 in the morning and not a guest was in sight for our Thanksgiving Coffee. But the invites did give a “10:00-ish” start time. So I turned my only slightly panicked attention to the Chai I had made. I had been fussing with it all morning and still the spices weren’t quite right. What’s more, following the advice of some quack Indian expert off the Internet, I had simmered the Chai with the milk and the milk had curdled. So 10:30 came and I began to descend into full-blown panic—bad Chai plus no guests!

The fact is, hosting food-related get-togethers involves a lot of gambling: Is a kid going to get hurt right when you should be stirring the gravy so it doesn’t lump? Will your guests be among the one in a hundred who despises sweet potatoes no matter how exquisitely you prepare them? Are you going to miscalculate how long the turkey or prime rib cooks so it ends up dry as a bone?

I think all these potential pitfalls really lead back to the one biggest fear every host has: What if no one has fun at my get-together? Isn’t that the worst: thinking that people might leave and walk back to their cars, whispering in confidence about how they’ll be sure to have a “prior engagement” next time around?

We all know that food contributes hugely to the fun of a party. When the food is so-so it leaves us feeling lukewarm. That’s the big, bad bugaboo every cooking hosts wants to avoid. We want out guests excited about the food, because that excitement bounces around and makes the whole party fun.

So the pressure is on when you’re the one cooking for a party. We don’t want lumpy gravy or dry turkey to lead to a lukewarm get-together. But how can you be assured of great, success-generating food when so many factors are outside our control?

If I were giving a talk on “kitchen success for the holidays,” here is the secret I would reveal:

Just give. In return, you shall get back in multiplies—and everyone will be in a good mood.

I had actually experienced this principle a number of times. The first time I was racing to put on a neighborhood block party: picking up all the toys littering our lawn, stashing gardening tools, scouring away an entire winter’s accumulation of dirt and filth from breezeway, setting up tables, and so on and so forth, all the while taking care of kids and, of course, trying to prepare a showcase summer salad. The work wasn’t nearly as bad as the thoughts running through my head: What if no one shows up? What if people don’t talk to each other, what if someone notices that I didn’t clean the cobwebs in the corners of the breezeway, and of course, what if no one likes the new Greek salad I’m making?

Just as I was just about to lift off from the force of my party panic, I had my epiphany: Why am I hosting this get-together to begin with? To give. Really, that’s what the party was about: Giving our neighborhood time and space to get together and have some old-fashioned, get-ta-know-ya fun. And giving them the best food I am capable of making as a center point for a gathering.

Those goals were completely within my control. Maybe my Greek salad wouldn’t go over with this crowd, maybe the lettuce on the relish tray would wilt because my son forgot to put it in the frig like I told him, and maybe it would rain (which it did!), but nothing could prevent me from giving: my best effort to whatever dish I was making, a warm smile when each guest arrived, a genuine interest in listening to their stories, a relaxed space where jokes and laughing could percolate.

Flash forward to yesterday’s Thanksgiving Coffee: 10:35 came, and still no guests. At 10:37, however, the guests began pouring in. Before I knew it, the house was full of merry talk and laughter. A few dear friends gamely tried my Chai and pronounced it “good.” I knew that was about the best that could be said for it, but that was enough. In the end, no one went home thinking about my Chai. As each one left, they just exclaimed how much fun it had been to get together with the neighbors we live next to but rarely see.

And, as I reminded myself, that was the whole point of the get-together to begin with.

Want to learn more about cooking simple but inspired holiday meals that are fun to share with your holiday guests?  Check out my listing of Holiday Cooking Classes.

Stress-Reducing Secret No. 6: Remember the Health Benefits of Wine

You’ve heard all the news about a glass of red wine being good for the heart. It’s also a great stress-reducer (which is maybe why it’s so good for the heart!)

Anyway, here’s the short and sweet on this stress-reducing secret:  As the appointed dinner-hour approaches and the tension could begin building, don’t miss out on happy hour. Have someone pour a glass for you and enjoy while pulling everything together at the end.

Note: This tip comes courtesy of one of the participants in my KitchenSmart classes.  She discovered that it works not only on holidays, but for everyday meal making, too.  So be sure to keep this one with you for Monday to Friday cooking file.  In fact, my husband has found that a glass of wine is perfect with a couple slices of French bread spread with Rosemary Yam Butter.  (I made a batch last week and he has been enjoying it ever since.)

Stress-Reducing Secret No. 5: Put the Party Before Perfection

I’ve hosted countless holiday fests. Many of those were less fun than they could have been for one simple reason: I had a vision that “good” hostesses always had everything done in advance, so when the guests arrived everything would be calm, everyone could sit down to a conversation-rich happy hour, and then a perfect meal would appear from the kitchen.

In fact, gatherings at my house were far from this ideal. The food was never done in advance, much less when dinner was supposed to happen. They would come together in a frenzied rush about an hour after the appointed time. The conversation was intermittent and hurried, kids were underfoot, guests were coming and going—and I was always in the middle of the mess trying to transform the cacophony into a symphony. And it was very stressful.

My sister-in-law first gave me the idea for a different kind of holiday feast, a “community-cooking” model that wouldn’t fight the natural bedlam but would put it to good advantage. So the next time a holiday gathering rolled around, I assigned everyone a dish and said, “Bring your ingredients and join me in the kitchen. You’re responsible for your dish from its start to its arrival on the table.”

It took a while for everyone to get accustomed to community cooking rather than Mary cooking while everyone else partied and waited anxiously and stressfully for dinner. It also took me a while (but not that long) for me to let go of the June Cleaver party hostess standard. Interestingly, our holiday feasts are even more crazy now, with everyone cooking together. But they are a lot more fun—and a lot less stressful!

Read more in the Stress Less Holiday Series:


Mary’s on Fox 31–Quick Tricks for Fast Gourmet Green Beans

I’ll be on TV again tomorrow, just one day before Thanksgiving with ideas for how to make a dish festive without a lot of fuss. We all know that Thanksgiving can be a huge undertaking.  To keep from getting overwhelmed, it’s nice to plan a couple dishes on the simpler side.  This recipe incorporates four tricks for easy, gourmet flair:

  1. Save time with high-quality frozen vegetables
  2. Stir in a dollop of roasted garlic
  3. Add flavor-rich sauteed mushrooms
  4. Sprinkle with fresh herbs

Green Beans with Roasted Garlic and Sauteed Mushroooms

  • 1 lrg head garlic (to make about 2 Tbsp. roasted garlic paste)

The night before or at least an hour in advance, roast garlic:  Preheat the oven to 350 (F).  Rub a head of garlic with about ½ to 1 Tbsp. olive oil.  Place inside a garlic roaster, small glass baking dish with a lid, or just wrap in foil.  Bake about 45-60 minutes, until garlic head is soft when squeezed from the sides.

  • ½ lb. cremini or portobello mushrooms, sliced about 1/8” thick
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil

In a large saute pan, heat oil until quite warm, then add mushroom slices and cook over medium to medium-low heat about 10-15 minutes, until their moisture is evaporated and they are lightly browned.  Stir occasionally to prevent burning.  Remove from heat.

  • 1 ½ lbs. fresh green beans, ends trimmed then cut diagonally into roughly 2” lengths (about 6 cups, trimmed)
  • 1 cup Pacific Foods chicken broth
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil

While mushrooms cook, prepare beans then combine with broth in a large saute pan with a lid. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer about 5-10 minutes, until almost tender when tested with a fork.

While beans cook, squeeze roasted garlic from skins into a small bowl.  When beans are almost tender, remove lid and push beans to the sides of pan.  Add roasted garlic to center of pan and, using a large fork, mash and blend with remaining chicken broth to form a thin paste.  Blend in olive oil, then stir garlic paste into beans to coat.

  • 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Stir cooked mushrooms, tarragon, and salt and pepper into green beans.  Cook 2-3 more minutes, until all of broth has evaporated and flavors have melded.  Serve immediately.

Note on Green Beans:

If you can’t find decent green beans in the produce aisle (which can be tough between November and May), a 6-oz bag of frozen can be substituted–as long as they are the whole petite green beans or haricorts verts, a tender French variety of green bean.  Safeway’s O brand and CW are both good options.  To cook, use only 1/2 cup chicken broth and reduce the cooking time by about half.

Kitchen Coach on TV–Whips Together an Appetizer with a Difference

Kitchen Coach Mary Collette is doing a Holiday Cooking series for Fox 31 in Denver.  Her first appearance was last Friday, November 21, when she and host Ken Clark made an appetizer tray featuring:

  • Rosemary Yam Butter
  • Sauteed (or Roasted) Red Pepper Strips
  • Whole Grain Baguette

It was a beautiful presentation–and it tasted great, too!  And it was really easy.  The only addition I would have made:  some gourmet olives on the tray for a little contrast.  Here’s the recipe:

Rosemary Yam Butter Appetizer Tray

  • 2 medium yams, baked, skinned then cut roughly into 1-2” pieces (enough to make 2 cups)
  • 3 Tbsp. good quality olive oil (or more, to taste)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Place yam pieces in bowl of food processor or cup of immersion blender and process until smooth.  With processor or blender running, add oil in a slow stream.  Process a minute or two, until yam butter becomes creamy and fluffy.  Add salt and pepper to taste, then process briefly again.

  • 1 tsp. fresh minced rosemary

Add to yam butter and stir thoroughly to combine.  Taste and add more rosemary (in very small amounts) or more salt and pepper, to taste.

  • 1 lrg red pepper, sliced lengthwise into ½” strips
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil

Heat oil in large saute pan until hot but not smoking.  Add pepper strips and saute over medium
high heat for just 3-4 minutes until slightly browned and wilted.

  • 1 12” whole grain baguette, sliced ¼” thick
  • 1-2 cups gourmet olives, pitted

To serve appetizer:  Mound yam butter in center of serving platter.  Surround with a ring of sauteed peppers, then baguette slices.  Finish with olives around edge of plate.  Use butter knives and small appetizer forks to spread butter and serve peppers, respectively.  Spread yam butter on bread and top with peppers, if desired.  Best when yam butter is at room temperature.

Serves 12 as an appetizer

Stress-Reducing Secret No. 4: Go Casual—with Diamonds

What if you’re getting stressed about making a new recipe but don’t have time for a trial run (Stress-Reducing Secret No. 3) ? In that case, go casual, but don’t forget the diamonds. In other words, take a familiar recipe and jazz it up with a few great accents.

Women know all about this strategy. You don’t feel like getting all dressed up for a party so you throw on a tried and true comfort outfit and add some razzle and dazzle with a great necklace, scarf, belt or shoes—or one of each.

Good news: You can do the same thing with a recipe. Here are three basic techniques:

1. Add a special ingredient, especially something too costly for everyday or that’s only available during the holidays. As an example, basic green beans become instantly gourmet by the addition of an exotic variety of sautéed mushrooms. The luscious red seeds of pomegranates, which come in season around the holidays, are another easy gourmet addition. Toss them in a basic stuffing, salad or vegetable dish.

2. Use a special cooking technique, maybe something that takes longer than you normally spend on a meal. As an example, mashed potatoes take on an amazingly rich dimension with the simple addition of roasted garlic. Of course there’s nothing difficult about roasting garlic. It takes about a minute to rub a head with olive oil, place it in a small, lidded casserole dish and pop it in the oven. Baked at 350 degrees it morphs into a sweet-pungent paste–but only if you will give it a leisurely 45-60 minutes to work its magic.  Take the time and you’ll end up with a stellar addition to your holiday meal.

3. Pay attention to presentation, like how things are cut and arranged for serving. You can get a lot of mileage without a lot of talent by just cutting fruits and vegetables with care. Say you’re just making a green salad. Take time to shave some fennel very thinly, use a julienner to create sweet strips of carrot, add some perfectly diced pears and apples, toss everything with some carefully hand-torn lettuce and spinach, then top with hand-broken walnuts and you’ve got an admirable addition to the holiday meal. For other dishes, don’t forget the benefits of garnish, like a few sprinkles of paprika on the potatoes, a bed of greens to frame the Waldorf salad, or sprigs of fresh parsley to liven up the sweet potato dish.

What a way to impress without a lot of fuss!

Want to learn more about cooking simple but inspired holiday meals?  Check out my listing of Holiday Cooking Classes.

Holiday Stress-Reducing Secret No. 3: Take a Trial Run

I am as guilty as can be on this one. Over the years, I have repeatedly treated my holiday guests as guinea pigs. This year, I’m only preaching a different line because I have been conducting a series of holiday cooking classes that feature the recipes I’ll be making for Thanksgiving. So I am experiencing firsthand how nice it is experiment on myself and my husband—not 20 other people.

It’s tempting to look at a recipe and wonder, “What could possibly go wrong?” In a word, “Plenty!” The amount of spice may be too much or too little, the recipe’s cooking time may produce a way-overcooked dish, your taste buds may wish for more onion or mushrooms, the dish may be too dry. . . . Trust me, there are any number of things big or little that can be off in a recipe. The good news is that most are easily fixable with just a little tinkering–something that’s possible if you’ve made the recipe once before!

Remember that recipes are just starting points. There are a few well-tested ones that will strike your taste buds perfectly right out of the box. Most, however, are best after a few adjustments to suit your particular tastes.

Of course if you don’t have time for a trial run, don’t get stressed (or check out Stress-Reducing Secret No. 4:  Go Casual.)  If you do have time, however, a little practice will provide a big boost of confidence and an equal reduction in meal-making anxiety on the big day.

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